Saturday, August 13, 2016

Summer Reading: Dirty Inspirations

Using a popular structural approach, the tone and message
of each chapter is established with a quote.
In my roles as both a weekend warrior and high school coach, I am always on the lookout for books that can provide motivation to the athlete-in-me, as well as break down challenging sports-psychology concepts for those interested student-athletes with whom I work. Dirty Inspirations: Lessons From the Trenches of Extreme Endurance Sports by Terri Schneider is that rare collection of essays that is capable of doing both. A champion endurance athlete turned sports psychologist, Schneider draws on her broad array of competitive experiences (ranging from Ironman tri-athlete to Eco-Challenge team member).

A world-class athlete, Schneider has personal experience battling the mental demons that come with endurance sports. Endurance sports, as defined by the Farlax Free Dictionary, are activities performed primarily by an individual "in which key muscles are exercised at submaximal intensity for prolonged periods of time," and within this competitive arena, the author finds multiple anecdotes illustrating a practical psychological approach.

What Schneider's anecdotes and experiences do so effectively is to add meaningful meat to the bones of  tired coaching code such as "Hang in here" and "You can do this if you try." Anyone who has engaged in athletics at any level (from recreational to professional) have heard ad nauseum, further reinforcing the reality that for many coaches (myself included), the real sports psychology employed is limited to motivational phrases. In the spirit of "physician, heal thyself," Schneider shows how her own application of these theories has resulted in both personal competitive successes and failures.

The text is broken into sixteen easily digestible chapters, each illustrating a different psychological training principle through the lens of the author's personal experience. This stricture allows time for the reader to intellectually breathe and reflect upon the insights offered in each chapter. While chapter titles such as "Afraid of Fear" and "Painting Your Authentic Self" have  whiff of self-help pop psychology, given the practical experiences behind each principle, Schneider avoids the potential pitfall of celebrity how-to book. In addition to being an exceptional endurance athlete, Schneider is also an academic who has pursued education in sport psychology. Interestingly, the author often refers to her motivations for pursuing such training as events in her competitive life give rise to the possible need for it. If anything, it is her academic writer's voice that puts this text in the realm of psychology and training literature rather than purely adventure biography. This is not to suggest the words lack passion, but to remind that this really is, I believe, intended to introduce valuable ideas within the exciting context of adventure racing. It is one thing to run a 10k or half-marathon and describe what it is like to work through discomfort, and another thing entirely to address the subject having successfully completed a 100 mile foot race.
Author Terri Schneider.

Two chapters I found of especially meaningfully, given my own current state of affairs were "Probing Commitment" (pages 58-68) and "Finding Comfort in Discomfort" (pages 138-155). Next week, I will be embarking on my sixth (!) season as a high school Varsity Cross-Country coach, in all likelihood with a team comprised of young women with little prior experience at running the 5k distance competitively. Additionally, I very recently participated in a 20k that frankly did not go as planned, and during whcih I sustained an injury, that had me questioning whether to continue or not. In both instances, "professional" and personal, the necessity of commitment, to the individual as well as to those who rely upon them, is significant. Both chapters spoke specifically to questions I had around internal motivation and the necessity of powerful self-talk in persevering.

Dirty Inspirations: Lessons From the Trenches of Extreme Endurance Sports by Terri Schneider is worthy reading for both the competitor and coach. Unlike similar books which speak to sports psychology in a specific athletic endeavor (basketball coaching books for basketball coaches for example), the anecdotes and information in Schneider's text are readily transferable to any sport, especially as the athletic feats of the author imbue her words with instant credibility. I look forward to sharing parts of this text implicitly through some decisions I make this seasons and explicitly by sharing excerpt with the team.

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